War reporting: truth at a discount

SCMP December 2

We are, or so we are told by leaders such as United States President George W. Bush, engaged in a war on terror. So what is The First Casualty, to quote the title of Phillip Knightley's classic book on war reporting? The truth.

It was hard enough to report on the war in Afghanistan due to restrictions imposed on journalists by the US and its allies. It was hard enough to know what was going on with the war on terror when even mainstream US presenters admitted to self-censorship in the name of patriotism rather than national security. It was hard enough to separate terror prevention from racist and fascist instincts when thousands of individuals were denied long-established rights.

But perhaps more insidious than a lack of information is being bombarded with misinformation through a gullible press driven by its desire to appear important or ready to be fed by ''intelligence sources'' with their own agendas.

Stories of atrocities have, of course, been the stuff of wartime propaganda since conflict began, but mass communication makes it easier to spread alarm and hate. In the modern era, the British press has been a particularly successful practitioner, from the reporting of the Boer War in 1899-1902 onwards.

There may be times when national survival calls for propaganda as a self-defence, and for journalists to print whatever security and propaganda ministries tell them. But patriotism also involves preventing nations being drawn into unnecessary wars. The headlines on August 5, 1964, in the US press were the likes of: ''US planes hit North Vietnam after second attack on our destroyers.'' In fact, there was no such attack.

So to the present. It is remarkable how much of the evidence of links between al-Qaeda, Afghanistan and Islamists has been discovered by Western media organisations and journalists, few of whom speak the languages - Arabic, Pushtu and Urdu - which might enable them to get close to al-Qaeda.

We need to treat with utmost caution stories attributed to unnamed intelligence, diplomatic and reliable sources. It would be comforting to believe that the Indonesian authorities have actually identified most of the planners and perpetrators of the Bali bombings. But the air is too thick with confessions, not all of which tally, and rumour presented as fact by both Western and Indonesian sources, to be confident.

If you think I am being paranoid, a recent incident demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate the media. Readers may remember the Asia Times. As a daily newspaper it closed down a few years ago, but it has stayed alive on the Web as Asia Times Online ( It is not a major news source but has reputable contributors and is often quoted by other Web sites focused on news and comment on international issues. On November 14 it ran a feature quoting, it said, from an interview the Arabic TV channel al-Jazeera supposedly conducted with the third in command of al-Qaeda, Mohamed al-Asuquf - which included plans for a nuclear attack on the US.

In fact, there was no such interview on al-Jazeera and the name al-Asuquf appears to have been made up. Yet the story made it not only on to Asia Times Online, but around the world. A Portuguese version showed up in such a remote place as Foz do Iguazu, where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet.

Asia Times Online had the courage to own up to being duped, and the author of its article, Pepe Escobar, apologised. He said: ''A source relayed the interview by e-mail from Singapore on November 6. This source had always been reliable ... The content was chilling, the author was unknown, the circumstances were somewhat bizarre, but the source assured there was no good reason to suspect a hoax.''

Unfortunately, Escobar did not reveal the identity of the supposedly ''reliable source''. Readers will have to make up their own mind about the identity and motives of such spreaders of alarmist lies. But such creators of disinformation exist. No doubt there are many journalists who will print as fact unverified claims from nameless sources if it assures them of a big story.




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